When we’re improvising it’s critical that we are attuned to all the aspects of the choices that our scene partners are providing. We often refer to this heightened sense of attentiveness as Active Listening and this exercise is a great way to sharpen this skill while encouraging players to make rich and detailed scenic choices. Beneath the Line truly invites players to scrutinize the hidden meanings contained in the first moments of a scene.
Players work in pairs. This can be done with all pairs working simultaneously, but I prefer to do it one pair at a time in front of the group if time and logistics allow as there is a lot to be gained from observing. A line of dialogue is obtained or assigned. Player A sits in a chair and is the receiver of the exercise. Player B enters the space and generally in silent action establishes a dynamic and detailed context for the scene and relationship. As this culminates, Player B says the pre-determined line of dialogue.
The line “I love you” is provided.
Player A sits “neutrally” in a chair.
Player B enters holding pantomimed keys in their hand. They slowly make their way around the “car,” with a heaviness in their gait and avoiding eye contact. Eventually they arrive at B’s side of the “car” and they open the door. With a gentle sigh and almost unconscious head shake, they utter “I love you…”
It is incumbent upon Player B to enter the space with a reasonably fleshed out sense of the given circumstances, while Player A should be studiously looking for clues and offers. The scene can draw to a close after the one line has been delivered and then Player A (and possibly the rest of the group that is observing) can articulate what they experienced and assumed. Player B may then have an opportunity to add any missed or “misinterpreted” details. This exercise also allows that rare improvisational do-over if Player A’s perception of events are wildly different than intended. As players become more confident and adept, scenes could launch from this first moment and then continue onward.
Generally, the one line is provided and this same dialogue may be used for multiple scenes in a row. In terms of the context, players may either self-select their own given circumstances before entering, or a detailed CROW could be provided privately from a list. Both approaches have pluses and minuses. While the first method allows greater freedom of choice for Player B, this freedom can feel too infinite at times, and players can be tempted to smudge their intent towards what was successfully communicated or only make vague assumptions prior to entering. The second method provides a more consistent target, but certainly involves considerable preparation. When I use this second variation I like to use random slips of paper so that players get to try scenarios regardless of any preconceived notions of “type”.
Traps and Tips
1.) Be patient in the chair. While Player A should begin the scene in a somewhat neutral state, they should still strive to be a receptive and helpful scene partner. They can be invited to move or participate in the activity of the scene, and should layer in emotional details and specific staging as they start to piece together the puzzle. However, they should also be patient and allow their partner sufficient room to establish some ideas before making large assumptions. For some, this might feel like a new way of beginning a scene, with one player more definitively taking the lead, so it might take some practice to feel the corresponding scenic rhythms.
2.) Emphasize the experience rather than being correct. A common adage of improv is that there are no mistakes, but this exercise does have an element of trying to solve a riddle with a particular answer. It is more than likely that players will misinterpret offers from their partner; in fact, this is part of the lesson and the fun of the game. As misreadings occur, emphasize the factors at play that could invite deeper listening and clearer initiations. Why was the relationship misconstrued? Did Player B make some unintended choices that influenced Player A’s perception? Were choices made in view of the audience but not in Player A’s line of sight? In retrospect, were there any missed opportunities for clearer communication?
3.) Make the silence count. The provided line, in the above example “I love you,” could occur anywhere in the scene but it tends to work well as the button to the initial offers. It’s helpful to use the conceit that while the players could choose to talk at any given moment, there is an emotional tension or rich backstory that at least initially prevents the characters from doing so. Extending the opening silence can be a true gift of this exercise, promoting greater patience and specificity in the initial moments of our scene work, so don’t needlessly rush through this silent action. Other utterances are fine, such as sighs, groans, exhalations and the like, but avoid putting any additional dialogue prior to the provided one line. A key goal of the game is to really make that one line count as much as possible.
4.) The more specific the intent, the better. In the above example, I was picturing an over-worked single parent who had just picked up their teenager from the police station again after being called away from an important business meeting at their law firm. Especially in written form, it’s unlikely that all of that was communicated in my description of the stage action, but this level of specificity gives the performer so much more to play with than just a parent picking up their child after school. Enjoy the opportunity to front load a dynamic premise while also accepting that the likelihood of communicating every small element successfully in the silence might be unlikely.
5.) Don’t feel the need to describe all your prior choices if you continue the scene. If you move the exercise into fuller scenes, it can be tempting to describe all the subtle gifts rather than just accepting them and allowing them to play out at their own pace. Yes, it can certainly be helpful to define key elements, to let your partner know that you also see them as the parental figure, or that you are outside your family home, but let these details emerge organically rather than in a monologue. If you are in the Player A position, you shouldn’t be afraid of making assumptions (ultimately what you perceived is your reality after all) but if there is a major element that feels opaque, it can be in the spirit of this exercise to allow your partner a little extra space to send you some more information. If you are in the Player B position and a choice is made that doesn’t gel with your intent, make sure you fully embrace this new direction. The discussion after the scene will give you a chance to explore any missed opportunities for stronger communication.
Beneath the line can really encourage a slower and more detailed style of play that embodies generosity, patience and attentiveness. There is no reason this approach to starting a scene couldn’t be added to your general improviser utility belt if it’s not there already as it can provide dynamic and rich openings. I also like that it makes that first line really count as the players have worked their way up to it with great deliberateness.
Connected Concept: Active Listening